Finding an Authentic Voice

I was in Canada last week. On one evening in Ottawa, the rain started to tumble in fat generous drops, what some Irish people might call ‘wet rain’, instantly soaking umbrellas and jeans and shoes.

I walked along Bank Street, its rainbow flags and cannabis shops blending softly in the reflection of the wet pavement, because I had the chance to meet a senior colleague, someone I respected, for dinner. The place he chose was a hipster’s paradise, the dinner specials a list of ingredients foraged by the chef: chicken of the woods, wild garlic, unexpected berries. We ate generous flavours, enjoying Covid-friendly spoonfuls of each other’s unusual dishes: my Szechuan tuna tataki, their venison tartare.

My memory of the conversation is of ribbons falling slowly through the air, each a colourful snatch of intrigue or possibilities or glimpses of shared endeavours and difficult personal processes. One memory feels firmer, threaded through our words in bright saffron contrast. It was a challenge to us both: where is your authentic voice?

Our context was academic research and who we write for. A publisher, a supervisor, the ghost of your high school English teacher, the grant provider, so that you don’t feel ashamed, your lover, the department, your academic profile. I could feel my concerns about my own academic work shrivel in the coldness of this mirror. I have done all of these things and – from time to time – allowed the meeting of expectations to be the frame into which my writing has poured at the expense of authenticity.

Expectations can be productive, frames can be liberating, the format of grant applications or funding projects can be tedious but help fund and produce important work. So these are not inherently negative processes (although we could discuss that). But I am talking about how these can obscure the intentions of someone trying to find their authentic voice.

I walked back into the Ontario night, the rain slowed by now to unexpected warm spots hitting the back of my head, thinking about authenticity. I flashed back to a rehearsal venue, a Dublin church, where I sang with Anúna, a group rich with creative and distinct soloists. I had just been asked to try a solo piece in which there could be sean-nós ornamentation and I – a novice to this form and lacking skill – attempted the ornamentation, to what seemed like a sucking of teeth and checking in with a more expert singer if my approach was ‘authentic’. In that moment, I was asked, where is your voice? I knew I could sing with or without resonance, I could ape styles, I could mimic tones, but which voice in the plethora of vocal possibilities was authentically mine?

I’d love to share with you a lovely denouement or disclosure about how my authentic voice was uncovered, musically and academically. But I was a child and a teenager and an adult who learned how to ‘pass’. I’ve thought about this a bit, the social ‘tightness’ of Northern Ireland in the 1970s, the powerful rigidity of religious and political identities, how women had to navigate the overwhelming toxicity of that world, the normalisation of domestic and child abuse in too many ways, the power attributed to the weakest of men, the endless rejection and vilification of queer kids, fat kids, clever kids. I learned that to pass, I needed to be not queer, not fat and not clever.

So thinking about my authentic voice is, for me at least, a process of slow determination, and I want to use this word ‘delamination’. I had to look up the dictionary just now to see if it meant what I thought it meant! I think it works, a removal of layers (perhaps I’m happier to say a recognition of layers).

Perhaps this is a prejudice, but I’ve often wondered if people who want to study psychology sometimes do so because they are interested in their own psychological health. Perhaps it can be a way of examining those *layers* that I’m thinking about. I study borders and how they can be destructive and I think there’s a very direct correlation between my experience of the Irish border throughout my life and my desire to study this area. Those particular layers of meaning seem clear to me but they are not the full picture.

I don’t think that Venn diagram of Study Area and People Studying That captures the complexity of authenticity. I do think of myself as a writer, whether academically or through the videos I make on travel on YouTube. Those are the media, a conduit from me to those I communicate with. I think this is why the question of voice has captured me.

I’ve been asked some questions about my travel vlogs and I’ve thought about how other travel vloggers work. Some people criticise well-known vloggers like Kara and Nate for being too ‘down home’ or Paul Lucas for using a particular format for his flight videos. To be clear, I enjoy both of these channels, alongside hundreds of thousands of other people! What I’m wondering about here is still the question of voice. Every channel is based on its filming and editing style and these are skills that can be used to shape, promote and market a person or idea, as we well know. Or these are skills that can enhance and amplify the authentic voice of the speaker. To be honest, any criticism I’ve had has been super mild so far (I am braced!). But I do think it’s fair to expect that the Patrick you are getting on my channel (or that my academic work produces) is me, the Patrick who is working on his voice.

This may be something of a journey together. An academic once said to me, you’ve GOT to pick a side. And I DO have an academic ‘side’, a way of seeing the world. I have other kinds of ‘sides’ too. I am an activist on migration rights and I am a Trustee of the Rainbow Project. I write poetry, make unboxing videos, love textile art, am a brother and uncle, enjoy cars, write music, am thrilled by the most mundane of technology news, cry at Strictly Come Dancing, am fascinated by cameras but not reading the manual, I am a performer.

As part of this process, I am thinking hard about representation. I’ve had a question about whether I should ‘carry a flag’ for one group or another more explicitly in my travel vlogs. Part of coming through the pressures to ‘pass’ through society has been, at least for me, a question of navigating powerful groups with strong ideologies, from the Church to political ideas, to academia or government, to the social pressures of coming out itself. For now, I am happy to *show* my experiences of the world as me, with all that brings, rather than *tell* people that I am filtering the world through the lens of this group or that.

The journey continues. I am happy to have you as a companion on the road.

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